NSF Director Recognizes Importance of Statistics
Ron Wasserstein, ASA Executive Director
In October of 2010, Subra Suresh became the 13th director of the National Science Foundation (NSF). In May, ASA Executive Director Ron Wasserstein conducted an interview with Suresh to learn about his views of the statistics discipline.
Suresh has an engineering background, primarily mechanical engineering. He has a bachelor’s degree from the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, a master’s degree from Iowa State University, and a doctorate from MIT. Upon completion of these degrees, Suresh did a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, where his research expanded to include materials science. After 10 years on the faculty at Brown University, Suresh moved to MIT as the R. P. Simmons Professor of Materials Science and Engineering. He became department chair in 2000 and dean in 2007. He remained dean until joining NSF. To read more about Suresh, visit the NSF website.
Connection to Statistics
Suresh claims no direct connection with statistics, though a daughter is working on a master’s degree in epidemiology and biostatistics at Northwestern University. He does agree with its importance, however. For example, he recognized the need to understand statistics and probability in order to make sense of the fatigue of materials. In addition, as the dean of engineering at MIT, he realized the need for teaching students the ability to solve problems that involve non-deterministic analyses, statistical estimates, and risk assessment.
Era of Data and Information
In his presentation of the president’s budget request for NSF, Suresh called this “the era of data and information.” At MIT and NSF, he sees research excitement in all areas of science and engineering. But, across all these areas, two points stand out. First, we have the use of so many tools for observation. From telescopes all over the world and out in space to environmental monitoring devices and powerful microscopes, the reach of NSF scientists goes from the smallest scale to the largest. With our computational abilities, we can record and store unprecedented amounts of data from these devices.
Intellectually, science is crossing traditional disciplinary boundaries. We can study not only the biology of the brain, but also our cognitive processes, and we are now able to collect data that link the two. Energy is always in the news these days. But, energy policy must be based not only on the physical science of what’s available and practical, but also the social and political science of what people will accept and how much they are willing to change.
Data also is being created in other ways, not just from scientific devices. Social networking sites and other businesses are also producing large amounts of data. Scientists will use this data in a progression from data to information and eventually to new knowledge. That is the scientific process: to collect data; sort, analyze, and filter it; and learn from it. Statistics is right in the middle of this. Within NSF, the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) will play a major role. (NCSES was formerly the Division of Science Resources Statistics.)
Why the Job Is Exciting
Being chosen to be NSF director is obviously a great honor. It shows the best side of the United States, that opportunities really are open to everyone. In 2010, NSF provided support for more than 200,000 individuals through grants to about 2,100 institutions. NSF plays a vital role in human capital development. NSF provides more than 20% of all federal research funding to universities and more than 50% of the nonmedical funding. At the individual discipline level, 64% of federal funding for university research in mathematics and 82% in computer science came from NSF last year. The Graduate Research Fellowship Program began in 1952. With the 2,000 awards made in 2010, more than 46,000 individuals have now received these awards.
It is important to articulate the benefits of long-term research. Research produces long-term individual benefits and also economic benefits for the country. When William Gladstone asked Michael Faraday how his research in electricity would benefit society, Faraday responded, “One day, sir, you may tax it.” At this time of huge national debt, it is imperative not to lose sight of the need for a long-term perspective for science.
We are facing unprecedented competition from international sources. In 2000, the United States was surpassed in terms of their non-defense research spending as a fraction of their gross domestic product. China is growing their research significantly in its next five-year plan, while the United States is facing drastic cuts in discretionary spending.
We need to maintain a strong STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) work force. The number of women who go into many science disciplines is increasing. That’s an encouraging sign, but many do not stay in the work force. We need to figure out how to keep them. By 2040, the United States will be a country that consists of a majority of minorities. But, these minority groups are not adequately represented in the STEM work force. We must make sure everyone has the opportunity to study and work in the STEM disciplines. And we must provide encouragement to those who are under-represented. For many years, the United States has trained and retained the best from throughout the world. But, there are growing concerns that we may lose this advantage if our scientific research enterprise is not adequately funded. In all these areas, NSF has a huge role to play.